On Sunday, that incorrigible Guilty Remnant was up to their old tricks! They are always doing something they should not be doing! Whether it's stealing family photographs on Christmas, or creating life-sized dioramas of people's worlds before the Sudden Departure, those dinks have just one thing on their mind: Being huge bummers.
In order of bummer:
- Gladys. Obviously the hugest bummer, because why did she even die? Just to be weird. Just to be weird and awful, the raison d'être of the Guilty Remnant everywhere.
- Patti. A very big bummer because she let her guard down and was not In It To Win It like the rest of the bummer ladies on this list. Normally that would be a sign of mental health, but in Patti's case it was actually the opposite.
- Meg. Not a total bummer. She had some shit going on that she was dealing with. The purest of them all.
- Laurie. Least of all the bummers, because she had the most conviction and willpower. If the GR didn't exist, she would have invented them.
The Guilty Remnant are bummers because even in the existential wonderland of The Leftovers, we can't help but create meaning. Even in the most abject grief there is not just grief, but also a story about grief, and the GR is the bravest, strongest, most-doomed expression of this basic truth.
O vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire,
The Horses of Disaster plunge in the heavy clay:
Beloved, let your eyes half close, and your heart beat
Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast,
Drowning love's lonely hour in deep twilight of rest,
And hiding their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet.
As Patti tried to explain it, quoting Yeats, right before she died: To say goodbye to our lost loved one, however they were lost, is to put aside a small piece of ourselves that was capable of hope. To destroy a small and delicate apparatus inside ourselves so that it stops moving, clicking, ringing. It's the only way to move on. It feels like dying because it's change; it's literally something dying, alongside the grief. Something breaking that might not ever get fixed.
But that's only what it feels like, when it's happening: The truth is that the whole narrative, the vanity of hope and sleep you've constructed around your grief, was self-preservation, illusory, selfish. It's how you survive, so it's good; it's also true that there's no such problem that didn't start out as a solution.
We've talked extensively about the Stockdale Paradox before: Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale served on the Ticonderoga in the Gulf of Tonkin, was shot down over Viet Nam in 1965, was the highest-ranking naval officer to be held as a POW. He was afraid they'd send out pictures of him looking well-treated, valued as human, he beat himself with a stool. He limped for the rest of his life. He was always coming up with codes and secret ways of communicating with his men and the outside world, to remind them they were never alone. The men sweeping the courtyard would spell out the rhythms he taught them, so he could hear them in his cell: We love you. We love you. We love you.
So when James C. Collins was writing a book about Stockdale he goes, "If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?" And this was the answer: "I never lost faith in the end of the story... I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade." Then, Collins asked him who didn't make it out:
"Oh, that's easy. The optimists... They were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart."
That's the vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream. Endless Desire. In the world of The Leftovers we're dealing with two kinds of grief: The personal, and the spiritual. We grieve for those we've lost, and we grieve for God. For some believers on the Job model, like Preacher Matt, it's just another test. For others, like the GR, it's proof that God is gone and we were judged as wanting. Proof of the divine and proof of your worthlessness. George Michael, of all people:
But we'll take our chances
Because God's stopped keeping score
I guess somewhere along the way
He must have let us all out to play
Turned His back, and all God's children
Crept out the back door
"Praying For Time" is a 1990 single from Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, it spent a week at number one that year, it's absurd that it was ever a single; it's a very important song that nobody ever hears the words to, maybe for the same reason barely anybody seems willing to commit fully to The Leftovers:
Did you cover your eyes when they told you
That He can't come back
Because He has no children
To come back for
But that's not really the bad news. It's half the story of grieving. You will never stop, never come back to the world, until your grief—which is a part of you, but feels like the whole of you; obliterates even the memory of who you were before the grieving—stops eclipsing the rest of you. You will never come back to us until you make a conscious choice to step out of the story you are telling yourself:
What I am is, a person who has lost something. What I am is left over.
That is a bullshit persona. It's a horrible trick to pull on yourself, even if you do it to stay alive, which is why we do it. And in the absence of a consuming eschatology—which is something all great religions will hand you, and a massively shitty trick in its own right—you don't have the luxury of anyone ever stopping you, once you do. Without the Singularity, or the Apocalypse—or if the Apocalypse has already come and gone—the only way things are going to change is if you go ahead and change them.
The best Tommy moment in the whole season is, at the precipice of his own leap of faith away from Holy Wayne and back into the secular world, the GR approaches him with a pamphlet: Everything that matters about you is inside. You open the pamphlet, and it's blank white. That's a great place to start.
The best Jill moment in the whole season is, at the precipice of her own leap of faith away from home and into the Guilty Remnant, she approaches the black dog of Kevin's heartbreak, and sets it free.
It happens too with Nora, literally, when her entire self-concept is appropriated by some strange criminal and she is left in a space of no-self, adrift in New York, taking drugs and mounting Real Dolls, hearing weird stories of her other, angrier self; acting those out too. What the GR wants Mapleton to do, Nora does to herself. More and more deliberately as time goes on.
But what ultimately saves her is when they, in their vicious kindness, finally help her burn it all down altogether. You could say this Metallica cover, playing over the GR's final arrangements for their own lynching is simply dark, but I don't know. Maybe it's just something she needed to hear, too. The show is cheeky but, unlike say a Ryan Murphy, it's never cheeky in disservice to its own transcendence. Sometimes the dorky thing is worth looking hard enough at, through the brightness, to get there with them.
What we learn from Nora Durst—her entire NYC bottle episode was about this one single idea—is that there is nothing vainer or more selfish than hope, if you do it wrong. She was using microexpressions and her intense charisma to manipulate people into believing in Heaven because she wanted so much to believe that her dumb family was in Heaven: That's about as selfish as it gets; she was preying on the grieving. She was no different from Patti or Holy Wayne, in this way, but once she understood that, from the inside out, she was able to shut it down. And move on, and up, and inward, faster than anybody else, and with such a force that in the end, even Jill can just see it on her.
Then too we have Justin Theroux's Kevin Garvey, a man who is literally split in two, an Ambien zombie who would like us to believe that he is a traveler between dimensions: Here where everything is broken, and There, where he and his father are not insane, where old magazines and strange coincidences and clues accrete and produce meaning. Where the symbolism of the black dog—Churchill's name for depression—is so explicit it just flattens out, into life.
When Kevin is In the Solution—when he's running wild, like his father, kidnapping women and tying them up in abandoned cabins—the dog doesn't hate him. The dog loves him. The dogs don't hate the Remnant, or Jill. What the dogs hate is Kevin's pretense of innocence, that Kevin allows the stag into his home, to destroy it, but keeps the mad black dog chained up, outside. That it was hope, again, that was tearing him apart, because the self that was grieving could only come out at night.
When Dean makes his bet with Kevin, that the dogs can never be tamed again, he's not just betting on Kevin (nor simply alluding to God and Satan's torture of Job, nor to the movie Trading Spaces) but on all of us: The children, whose urban legends have taken the place of conventional religion for the majority of the world's leftovers, are usually right. If the dogs are crazy because they witnessed the event, and the humans are pretending not to be crazy because technically they did not, then obviously the dogs are correct.
But if we're all crazy now—if we're all dirty—then we can all equally be healed, redeemed. Tamed, brought back. Kevin and Laurie are on opposite journeys, his through mazes of meaningless meaning and hers through wastelands without any meaning at all, but they're both necessary and they're both leading to the same place.
"This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."
Which is how the Guilty Remnant, singular, can be a very good thing, even if the Guilty Remnant plural is a bunch of bullshit: That's how religions go, that's how activism works, that's where feminism comes from, that's every martyr and every messiah. The goalposts are moved by weirdos who can't find a place in the status quo, and make the cause—the narrative of change, whatever it is—bigger than the rest of themselves, eclipsed by it, so that at the end of the story the world will have changed into a place where we all can live.
Ideologically we change the world by incorporating What Should Be, slowly and painfully, into What Just Is. But what that often appears to require is more than simply selfless service, it's self-sacrifice, and the sacrifice of self is just about the worst thing you can do. It's the ultimate breakdown in your negotiation with the world; it's being a Patti when you could be a Nora.
"The discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be," is something the world of the Leftovers needs desperately. Where the Guilty Remnant gets it right, by doing it wrong, is giving themselves the authority (like any evangelist) to force that discipline on everyone else. They haunt the Leftovers, they come like thieves in the night; they scratch at every scab until it bleeds.
"We Made Them Remember," writes Meg, tied up and bleeding so vengefully and proudly. Laurie's face starts beautiful and harsh, and only gets moreso; as Meg dives into the dark, she becomes less and less haunted and more possessed, until she is on fire.
"We Are Living Reminders," read the walls of their burnt-up compound. Their proclamation of faith is toward an end: Denied their Apocalypse, and in the absence of God, they make the end into a new deity altogether. They haven't lost faith that they'll prevail in the end, because they never had it.
It's not the crumminess or the meanness or the self-erasing asceticism that sticks so much as the plain and simple egotism of any evangelical movement, times a million. Not just one martyr, but thousands, each competing to be the biggest whipping boy; to tease out catharsis is divine, but then to pretend you're not getting off on it is absolutely profane. Never worth it.
As Golda Meir famously said, "Don't be so humble—you're not that great." It's like Brenda's stunt on Six Feet Under, forcing Nate and David to ride the same bus that, they learned, killed their father: Appropriate move, if you allow yourself the pass of not being a human being. Otherwise, dick move. We are not here to teach others, we're here to learn from them.
And opposing them, Preacher Matt: The only person we meet (with the possible exception of Jill's Huckleberry friend Aimee, whose parent is in a catatonic state of some kind or another) grieving inside the collective grieving, his paralyzed wife (Donna from The West Wing) neither departed nor really here.
Of them all, Matt invokes the old story about Edward R. Murrow in the Blitz, noticing a firetruck going by in the middle of the day: Even as the world is ending, some people's stoves might still catch fire. It helps to remember, because it's grounding and because your compassion could use the reminder that there is no relativity to pain; that everyone's apocalypse is personal.
Like his sister Nora, Matt's confused the two things, faith in the future and radical acceptance of the truth; like his friend Kevin he sees signs and portents everywhere he looks. His mission to redeem the Guilty Remnant is as necessary, and as futile, as their mission to wake up the world to apocalyptic horror: They both want to confront the situation, to explode the status quo, and they both do it by brute force. Because they can't do nothing.
If we consider Preacher Matt and the Guilty Remnant as two sides of something, then, it's Laurie being forged between them. It would be easy to reduce Laurie's nihilistic fortitude to a simple miscarriage narrative, just like she reduced Patti's crazed-prophet intimations of the coming event as metonym for her failed marriage. But we come to see Laurie in the past as a woman whose strength of will already controls her world: Idiot Kevin hides his smoking, feels driven to infidelity, and so on, even before the event.
Where Patti wants so desperately to cling to the tenets of the GR, and fails so often, Laurie is at home and at peace with them, finally: Because it was never about the miscarriage, that was at most a physical experience of something she'd always known. Something that she was only ever barely keeping from eclipsing the rest of her; something that became the whole narrative the first chance it could:
"I think I'm supposed to stay broken," Laurie tells her husband, via Meg, in thanks for his dedication to saving her, from the moment they met.
"Maybe we're all beyond repair," Nora voices over, as Laurie walks back into the sun after this last night of the long knives, her hideous and beautiful will finally cracked down the middle.
"She wants to be fuckin' hurt," Kevin screams, when they find Meg on Memorial Day, bearing the world's pain on her smug, humble, destroyed, beautiful face.
Shit happens. Growing up is in large part about making peace with that, making peace with the part of yourself that will never be at peace, but that's still only half the story. We spend a lot of time pretending it's not part of the story at all, or that these things are avoidable, which is how most messes start: A toddler's staunch inability to admit complexity, unfairness, negativity. I don't think pain or shame are necessary, but I do think we live in the world and I think it's acceptably infantile, but unacceptably disrespectful, to pretend that we don't.
You can take a story like this—whether you're inside of it, grieving, or outside, where we are—and say that it's boring, or too bleak, that it contains no meaning, that it promised puzzles and mysteries and didn't deliver, as though we learned nothing from Lost and True Detective, as though we are living Under a Dome. We can say that because something holds no meaning for us, it holds no meaning, and that's fine too. Arrogant, but nobody's listening anyway.
However, to do so is to miss the truly holy moments, striking in their brightness and clarity, that I would argue can only come clear, in our age, from a story like this. The world doesn't need more dystopias, but it sure as hell needs more hope, and we're too old to pretend anymore. The difference between lighting a candle and simply cursing the darkness is first admitting how dark it's gotten. How bright it still could be.
To get mired in the bleakness of sadness is to run screaming from it, which solves nothing; we like nothing better than to remain unchanged. The show demands the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of its reality, whatever they might be, and that means never looking away, and that's all the GR ever wanted you to know.
If you don't see Preacher Matt, led to financial security by omens and struck down by sudden greed, you can't see how great his dedication becomes in response: If you don't go through the bad parts you'll never see how the GR stealing his church out from under him is what gave him back his faith, and his strength, and his sanity.
(And if you shut your brain down whenever anybody uses words like that, you'll miss the smartest Easter Egg in, possibly the key to, the whole season: Matt's episode is titled "Two Boats and a Helicopter," a clear reference to the story of the man in the flood who keeps saying God's gonna save him, sending away rescuer after rescuer; when he finally gets himself killed and arrives at the Pearly Gates, God slaps the shit out of him. Faith is not for the faint of heart and, contrary to what anybody tells you, not for the weak of mind or will either.)
If you don't follow Nora to New York and watch her slowly regain her sanity (by going insane), up to Holy Wayne's embrace and back home again, you won't know what it means that she's the only person—Nora Durst, the most famous legacy—who comes downstairs to her hideous mockery of a family and coughs up her grief; who communes with them, putting herself back together in the morning sunlight, while the rest of Mapleton prepares for a murderous riot.
"I want to believe it can all go back to the way it was. I want to believe that I'm not surrounded by the abandoned ruin of a dead civilization," she says. Two contradictory statements. But at least she's figured out the joke about the helicopter:
"I have to move towards something, anything," she says. It's all any of them, any of us, are ever saying. Most of us just don't have the bravery to start.
I think there are those of us that look for clues and tricks and puzzles in our grief; I think the reason 80% of all scripted television is about solving murders and finding missing blonde girls is because we are still acquainting ourselves with the facts of loss, without religion to back us up with easy answers. (The other 20% is literally about clues and tricks and puzzles and Hatches and Domes, for obviously the same reason.) But I think a show like this, that teases with mysticism and undercuts it at every turn, is a strong antidote to that bullshit; more importantly I think a show like this, that sets aside religion and starts dealing with God, is the only sane response to the world.
Perhaps you'll pick it up again, if you left off somewhere along the way, and perhaps you won't. Maybe you loved it the whole time, or loved certain characters; maybe you enjoyed "hate-watching" it, whatever the fuck that means. Me, I loved it for Laurie's inspiring intractability and Meg's boundless, feral rage; for Preacher Matt and Tommy Garvey, who got stronger and stronger the weaker they became. For Aimee and Jill's wisdom and compassion, even or especially when disguised as ennui; for the black dog they set free.
But most of all, for the Guilty Remnant, so selfish in their selflessness, standing outside the prison walls. They're prisoners too, and unspeaking, but nevertheless calling us home again and again, back to the moment of our trauma, when the world stopped turning:
We love you, we love you, we love you.